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The Boston Phoenix Country Comforts

Cheri Knight's "Northeast Kingdom."

By Jonathan Perry

JANUARY 20, 1998:  It's the day after Christmas, and even if she weren't picking out a quietly remote table for our interview, you'd get the distinct impression that Cheri Knight likes to live away from the crowds. "I don't get down here that much anymore. Everything's changed so much," she had said minutes earlier as we trudged down Northampton's snow-spattered streets, scouting out a suitable spot for a chat.

Walking under steel-gray skies in a caramel suede jacket, blue jeans, and scuffed cowboy boots, Knight lamented the closing of a local record store that had put up window displays when her previous band, the Boston-bred Blood Oranges, released their debut album, Corn River (East Side Digital), back in 1990. Although the group folded after releasing another full-length disc and EP, the singer's had no trouble keeping herself busy. For one thing, there's her flower business. Knight, who comes from a family of farmers -- and used to raise dairy goats -- spends a good portion of the year growing and selling flowers on a farm in Whately, just down the road from the home she shares with her husband, Mac, in the tiny rural town of Hatfield (population 3390). So maybe it's no coincidence that the wood-paneled sanctuary she's picked out for us is called the "Vermont Country Deli & Cafe." Or that the title of her second solo album, The Northeast Kingdom, which comes out February 10 on Steve Earle's E-Squared label, refers to a tucked-away corner of northeast Vermont. In any case, when she's not seeding or weeding, she's writing great songs.

Like her 1995 solo debut, The Knitter (ESD), The Northeast Kingdom is rife with images and impressions drawn from the wide-open spaces of Knight's life on the farm. On songs like "Rose in the Vine," land, soil, and sky figure as panoramic symbols of mortality, loss, and memory; the language of farming becomes a kind of poetry of the seasons, a metaphor for the rituals of time and the cycles of nature.

"Farming's like music," she says, in between sipping a ginger ale. "When you're doing it, it's the only thing that matters in your life at that moment. It's an expression of me." Sometimes, when she's lucky, one calling becomes a spiritual prism for the other. She wrote "Rose in the Vine" while out in the fields with her flowers. And in equal measure, the music sends her back to the land. "I like to work on my music in a concentrated period of time and then I stop. I'm not interested in quantity. At this point, I'm not interested in writing a song that doesn't matter to me personally or have something to do with my life."

Knight's life was at loose ends when the Blood Oranges split up, in 1994. "It was really hard to find anyone to play with because the people I was used to playing with were all in New York. But as time went by, I realized that being a solo artist was something I needed to do."

The result, The Knitter, was a luminous collection of roots-pop songs as evocative as anything she'd done with her band. Although the album received scant distribution from the floundering ESD label, its songs reached the right pair of ears in Steve Earle, a songwriter's songwriter who co-owns a label specializing in uncompromising rock and roll with a country kick. "He found me," says Knight, her voice rising in a lilt of surprise. "Somebody gave him a compilation tape with some Blood Oranges stuff, and he liked it and called me from Ireland and offered me a record deal right then and there."

Knight discovered that she and Earle shared tastes not only in music but in how that music is created. "He likes to make records the way I do -- getting it to the point where everybody [in the band] knows the song but is hitting it quickly so it's very spontaneous. Some people like to put together a pristine package but I'd rather go in and have it be a document of a certain time. That way you don't wind up with a record that's not really you."

Knight recorded The Northeast Kingdom in a two-week blur at Nashville's Room & Board Studios with a cast of friends old and new. The album, produced by E-Squared's "twangtrust" team of Earle (who also contributes guitars and vocals) and Ray Kennedy, finds Knight at her primary instrument, bass, drawing vivid portraits that deepen in color and mood with each listen. She's joined by former Blood Oranges bandmates Mark Spencer (guitar) and Jimmy Ryan (mandolin), and longtime musical ally and former dB's drummer Will Rigby. Emmylou Harris lends her voice to two tracks. Overall, the music is burnished but not polished -- just the way Knight likes it.

"I think it's a pretty dark album," she says with a smile. "But it's so hard for me to get any kind of distance on this record and I don't know why. Sometimes I listen to it and there are things that are so raw and untamed that, depending on my mood, it can make me cringe. But that's my goal -- to do a record that's so honest I can't listen to it."


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